A LAST holdout of 51 striking workers at Hyundai's giant shipyard finally climbed down last week from their defiant position atop a giant 250-foot-tall crane. The lofty climb-down was a telling gesture for labor unions in South Korea. They are backing off from an explosive era of confrontation that coincided with Korea's three-year struggle toward a budding democracy.
Industrial actions, which rose more than 10-fold in 1987, have since dropped by more than half.
Despite this trend, the government of President Roh Tae Woo last month sent in thousands of police with tear gas into battles against Hyundai strikers in the port city of Ulsan. And yesterday it put all 130,000 police on alert to prevent antigovernment violence marking a 1980 civil uprising, as striking workers of the Hyundai auto plant remained off the job for a third day.
Analysts here say Mr. Roh's tough ``law and order'' stance may be linked to the fact that South Korea's ``economic miracle'' for the past three decades was built on low wages.
That began to change in 1987 when a new official leniency led to the number of unionized workers doubling, the number of unions nearly tripling, and the number of strikes and industrial actions skyrocketing.
The result: workers gained 30.1 percent more in their after-inflation paycheck, official calculations show. Such a steep rise was tolerated, albeit with gritted teeth, by many of Korea's once-paternalistic business tycoons who dominate the economy and profited well during the 1986-89 double-digit export boom.
But in the past few months, a nation once billed as ``the second Japan'' has seen exports dip and economic growth slip to 7 percent. That rate would make other nations more than happy. In Korea, however, where politics is still unstable and public expectations have risen sharply, the drop from 12 to 13 percent growth has created a ``crisis'' mood.
The ruling party and military, confident with a new majority in the national assembly, have ordered a crackdown on ``illegal'' strikes. ``Public anxiety has mounted,'' admitted President Roh in an apologetic television address on May 7. Roh, widely perceived as unable to fulfill his past pledges, promised ``extraordinary determination'' to solve national problems, warning of firm action against ``illegal'' or politically linked strikes.
He claimed the public is behind him in getting tough on strikes and militant union leaders at a time of economic slowdown. And indeed, compared to the last few years, unions themselves have reduced demands for this spring's annual wage talks.
But fears that Roh is backsliding into the autocratic and repressive ways of the previous military-linked regimes (from which he comes) have helped to put energy into violent protests, and his actions have drawn criticism from political opponents.
``He's acting like the dictators before him,'' says Lee Chul, assemblyman with the new Democratic Party. Some government officials justify the recent crackdowns, claiming that opposition parties or North Korean agents are behind many union activities.
One of Roh's top advisers, Lee Hong Koo, says any feeling of crisis is mainly political. Are we really building democratic institutions? This question affects long-term investment,'' he says.
Korea is still emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, Dr. Lee says. Politicians and labor leaders are making strong demands for quick social equity and retribution against those who became wealthy from ties to past regimes. He draws a lesson from the newly democratized nations in Latin America, where such demands scared away badly needed investment by the rich.
In Korea, the most visible target for public resentment is a new conspicuous consumption among the rich. They are buying up such newly allowed imports as sporty European cars.
Those with money also have fueled land speculation, which has doubled property values and hurt workers by boosting rents - as much as 15 percent a month.
An excessive political backlash against Korea's wealthy is ``pretty well under control,'' Dr. Lee says.
At the same time, Roh is trying to crack down on land speculation by forcing chaebols (the nation's big conglomerates) to sell idle land. Many corporate leaders have been faulted for not having plowed recent profits back into technological research that might have continued the boom after the rise in wages.
Last year, real wages rose 14.0 percent compared to only a 6.7 percent rise in worker productivity, a reversal from previous years. ``Among all the wage levels in Asia, Korea is now second to Japan,'' having surpassed Taiwan last year, says Dr. Moo Ki Bai, president of the government-linked Korea Labor Institute.
``Korea's labor problems over the past three years are not a bad pattern for what other newly industrialized nations in Asia will eventually go through,'' Dr. Moo says.
Much of the worker strife was due to claims by union leaders that many labor laws and the way they are implemented are not democratic. For example, they cite a restriction against unions using outside ``experts'' in a labor dispute. ``As we change from political authoritarianism to democracy, so too should our labor relations. But that has failed,'' says Kim Sang Hyun, chairman of the Korean Academy for Democracy.
Critics challenge a law that prevents unions from financing or supporting any political party or its candidates. ``As long as there's lack of real democratization, the opposition will continue to use labor as part of its strategy,'' says Harry Kamberis, an American who works in Korea for an AFL-CIO training institute.